|Bill Whitman (center) coordinates Common Kitchen volunteers and always has new ideas for the Fair and for MOFGA. The latest: maintaining a list of jobs to be done at MOFGA so that “overflow volunteers” at the Fair have something to do. English photo.
Bill Whitman’s Latest Idea
by Marada Cook
From The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener
September - November 2007
Bill Whitman’s first idea for MOFGA came from his volunteer job at the ’77 Common Ground Fair. “I just ran and ran and ran,” he says, “delivering messages from one end of the grounds to the other.” At a wrap-up meeting in the fall, Whitman suggested that MOFGA purchase some walkie-talkies. True to their ‘inspire and empower’ spirit, MOFGA immediately appointed Whitman Director of Logistics. “From then on I worked every single year at the Fair as a volunteer,” he says.
A well known storyteller often found in the Common Kitchen, Whitman’s volunteer work has spanned MOFGA’s various fairgrounds and brings anecdotes from each. He remembers when he, Paul Chartrand and Chaitanya York caught and expelled a thief – without the stolen clothing – one night at an early Fair in Litchfield. As Fair director in Windsor, Whitman gathered another midnight crew to move a chain link fence closer to the raceway to accommodate the food booths. “The fence was only three feet high,” Whitman says, “but we did move it 30 feet.”
Not all Whitman’s work has been in the dead of night. Since 1990, Whitman’s volunteer work has focused on the Common Kitchen. Patty Hamilton met Whitman while preparing potatoes and oatmeal in the early hours of the morning. “At that time Bill was the central person coordinating the kitchen. I was a one-job volunteer – and I liked it that way.” After she finished potatoes and oatmeal, though, Whitman saw that Hamilton would make a great breakfast coordinator. “I’m not sure what he saw in me at the time,” Hamilton says, “but he had a knack for training me while standing behind me and supporting me.”
Part of Whitman’s method of supporting the breakfast coordinator was – and still is – to be the link between each meal, its coordinators, and the rest of the kitchen activities. “Bill pays attention to inventory, organizes the coolers, makes sure leftovers get used, and goes outside the kitchen to pick apples, get milk or find more sausage. He’s a support person.” Although Whitman is rarely ‘in charge’ of a specific meal, Hamilton says, “He’s always there.”
Whitman had long been in charge of soliciting food donations first from farmers and food vendors and then from corporations such as United Foods. Each year he gathered ingredients for the annual 4,400 meals served to volunteers during the Fair. Now Hamilton has responsibility for corporate donations, leaving Whitman with time to work on his latest idea for volunteers at the fair.
“I go to a lot of MOFGA meetings every year,” Whitman says, “sometimes just to be the devil’s advocate and stir people up. I hear feedback from just about everyone and try to direct it where it needs to go.”
This past year he heard that a surplus of volunteers went ‘jobless’ at the Fair. “I can’t think of a time when we don’t need a mass of volunteer force for something around MOFGA,” Whitman says, “but it seems that during the Fair nobody has time to organize them.” For 2008, Whitman has created the ‘Overflow Volunteer Area’ – a collecting point for mulching crews, tree labeling teams, last-minute and thinking-ahead work forces to tackle projects that didn’t get done over the summer. It’s a work force that many area coordinators can tap into if they are caught short for volunteers–and a place to send them if too many show up.
“I think the heart of the Fair is its new ideas,” Whitman says. “Common Ground has inspired so many other fairs around the country, it’s almost as though we have to keep coming up with new tricks every year.” The ‘Overflow Volunteer Area’ is Whitman’s latest trick, and certainly not the last of his ideas for supporting MOFGA at the Fair.